By:  | 

An Israeli Campaign of Chutzpah


As Yeshiva University students headed to Washington to lobby on behalf of AIPAC and Israel, Israel, it seemed, could not have cared less about their efforts.

The Merkaz Klita, the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, recently released a video and billboard ad campaign targeted at Israeli expatriates. The advertisements’ not-so-subtle message is that Israelis will lose their Jewish identity by remaining in the United States.

One video shows a couple in New York City returning from a party. The woman, we learn, is an Israeli named Daphna. She sits on a couch looking apprehensively at a website showing a candle and the Hebrew word “Yizkor,” which means “remember.” The man, portrayed as a secular American Jew, mistakes the memorial candle for an indication of a romantic evening, not realizing that Daphna is in fact mourning for Yom Hazikaron.  As the man walks towards Daphna, he asks, “What is this?” The advertisement concludes in Hebrew, “They will always remain Israeli, but their partners will not always understand what that means. Help them return to the land.”

Another ad shows a webcam conversation between Israeli grandparents and their granddaughter living in a nameless American suburb.  Behind the Grandparents stands a menorah with a few lit candles. The grandparents ask, “What holiday is it today, do you know?” The girl responds “Christmas!” to her grandparents’ chagrin. Again, the advertisement concludes in Hebrew “They will always remain Israeli, but their children won’t. Help them return.”

The Jewish Channel, which broke the story, called the campaign “semi-covert” in “at least five cities.” A billboard in Florida said, in Hebrew, “Before Abba is changed to Daddy…It’s time to return to Israel.” Another in Boston read, “Before motek is changed into Honey…It’s time to return to Israel.”

Soon after, writers such as Benjamin Hartman from Ha'aretz, Ben Smith from Politico, Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of The Jewish Week, blogger Jeffery Goldberg and many more, have written reflective opinions about the ad campaign. All of them have jumped on the same limited issues: the message it sends to American Jews about intermarriage and assimilation, the unappreciated support of Israelis for American Jews and the tension it creates across the atlantic. The similarity between these arguments indicates the obvious message the ads sends to the American Jewish community and so it is no surprise that this story made headlines in every Jewish paper in the nation and fostered strong opinions in the blogosphere from 972 magazine to Jewlicious.

While it is perfectly fine for the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption to run advertisements calling Israeli expats, numbering roughly two million in the US, to return to Israel, their underlying message should strike any American Jew as outright chutzpadic (brazen). Instead of advertising the quality of life in Israel, these campaigns cast a dark shadow on what the Ministry feels about American Jewish identity. This campaign claims that Israelis’ heritage will be lost if they remain in America.

This series of ads seems to challenge the adaptability of the famous midrash that the Hebrews in Egypt did not lose their identity because they kept their names, language, and modest dress. In other words, the United States is no place for Jews; Abba will become daddy, motek will become Honey, and Hanukkah will become Christmas.

They exploit two of the American Jew’s greatest fears, namely, assimilation and intermarriage. These ads not only touch a sensitive nerve, but they send an unfair fatalistic message to any Israeli living abroad. While living a Jewish life in America does not come without challenges, neither does living in Israel.

More seriously, these ads seem to ignore the intrinsic religious, political, and economic connection that Jews share across the Atlantic. These ads not only overlook, but insult the millions of Jews who choose to live in America.

These ads were so offensive as to cause Abe Foxman of the Anti Defamation League to label the ads "heavy handed" and "demeaning." The Jewish Federations of North America sent a memo to the Ministry saying, "We share the concerns many of you have expressed that this outrageous and insulting message could harm the Israeli-Diaspora relationship." They subsequently sent a strongly-worded statement to the Prime Minister's office asking them to reconsider the strategy.

It is no surprise that a few days after the ads went up, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption announced the end of the campaign at the behest of the Israeli government. Michael Oren, the ambassador to the United States, apologized saying, “the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign clearly did not take into account American Jewish sensibilities, and we regret any offense it caused.” However, the fact that the Ministry canceled the ads does not negate the original message of contempt for American Jews. The Ministry and, by extension, the Israeli Government must seriously rethink its relationship to American Jews.

This ad campaign should come as a slap in the face to Yeshiva University students who just spent time in Washington to lobby for billions of dollars in essential defense and economic aid to Israel. Perhaps the Ministry can redirect the $800,000 spent on the campaign to thank its American Jewish supporters instead of insulting American Jewish identity.